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The 8-Year-Old Boy at the Heart of a Fight Over Tibetan Buddhism

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The boy had seemed destined for a life of affluence and earthly pursuits. Born into the family behind a major mining conglomerate in Mongolia, he might have been picked to someday lead the company from its steel-and-glass headquarters in the country’s capital.

Instead, the 8-year-old is now at the heart of a struggle between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Communist Party.

He was just a toddler when everything changed. On a visit to a vast monastery in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, known for a towering Buddha statue gilded in gold, his father brought him and his twin brother into a room where they and seven other boys were given a secret test.

The children were shown a table strewn with religious objects. Some of them refused to leave their parents’ sides. Others were drawn to the colorful candy that had been placed as distractions. This boy, A. Altannar, was different. He picked out a set of prayer beads and put it around his neck. He rang a bell used for meditation. He walked over to a monk in the room and playfully climbed on his legs.

“These were very special signs,” said Bataa Mishigish, a religious scholar who observed the boy with two senior monks. “We just looked at each other and didn’t say a word.”

They had found the 10th reincarnation of the Bogd, one of the three most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism and, for many, the spiritual leader of Mongolia, where nearly half the population is Buddhist.

For the next seven years, the monks kept the identity of the Bogd, known formally as the Jebtsundamba Khutughtu, a secret.

Then in March, the Dalai Lama introduced the boy at a ceremony in India in front of throngs of worshipers, his tiny frame engulfed by a maroon deel, the traditional Mongolian gown, with his doe eyes and spiky crew cut peeking out above a white surgical mask.

The news that the 10th Bogd had been chosen was cause for celebration in Mongolia.

The Bogd is a symbol of Mongolia’s identity, a position dating back nearly 400 years to descendants of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, who embraced Tibetan Buddhism and helped it spread across China and other conquered lands. In the early 20th century, a Tibetan-born Bogd (pronounced bogged) was the theocratic ruler of Mongolia, revered as a god-king figure. Today, the title adorns banks, cashmere boutiques and auto dealerships. When someone sneezes, Mongolians say “Bogd bless you.”

But who gets to be the Bogd is a sensitive question with implications for Mongolia, China and Tibet. The Chinese Communist Party has sought to assert its authority over Tibetan Buddhism even outside China’s borders, part of a long campaign to tighten its control over Tibet.

China regards the 88-year-old Dalai Lama — who fled Tibet as a young man in 1959 and has been living in exile in India ever since — as an enemy determined to free Tibet from Chinese rule. Though officially atheist, the party has asserted that only it can name his reincarnation, and those of other high lamas.

After the last Bogd died in 2012, there was concern that China would try to choose or influence the selection of the next one. In 1995, China kidnapped a boy the Dalai Lama had named as the Panchen Lama, the second-most-recognizable figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

So when the Dalai Lama appeared with A. Altannar in public this year, it was a defiant assertion of his influence over the faith and a challenge to Beijing’s claims over succession. And it put Mongolia on the spot, straining its delicate relationship with China, its much bigger and richer neighbor.

Then there is the question of whether the tradition of anointing children as lama reincarnates makes sense and still has a place in modern Mongolia. Some have also complained that elite families like the boy’s enjoy too many privileges.

Meanwhile, his American-educated parents are coming to grips with giving up their hopes and dreams, for their son to serve a religious calling they did not choose.

The boy, a third-grader with a fondness for TikTok and video games, now faces decades of theological training, a lifetime of celibacy, and the grave responsibility of having to defend Mongolian Buddhism against Chinese pressure. And, in some ways, so does his twin brother.

To obscure A. Altannar’s identity and protect him from overzealous worshipers or worse, the twins, Achildai Altannar and Agudai Altannar, who are identical, are rarely seen in public without each other. In fact, neither the Dalai Lama nor the parents have publicly said which boy was introduced at the ceremony.

“We want our son to grow up in a normal environment, not under pressure, not under scrutiny of heavy teachings,” said Munkhnasan Narmandakh, 41, the boy’s mother. “If he wants to play video games, he should.”

When Mr. Bataa, the religious scholar, and the leaders of Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar set out on the search for the next Bogd, they were flummoxed. The process of finding a reincarnation had almost been lost to time. They had to dust off old religious texts from the National Archives and consult with experts in the Dalai Lama’s office in Dharamsala, India.

The team pulled 80,000 names from the list of boys born in Ulaanbaatar in 2014 and 2015, the years after the last Bogd died. They followed an ancient custom of parsing mystical visions and astrology to winnow the selection down to 11 to take the secret test — though the families of only nine boys responded.

That afternoon, the objects that A. Altannar picked up — the necklace and the bell — had belonged to the Ninth Bogd. The monk he climbed on was the Ninth Bogd’s assistant.

In many ways, the challenges with the search underscored the weakened state of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia.

It had been nearly 300 years since the title of Bogd belonged to a Mongolian. After the Mongols submitted to the Chinese Qing Empire in the late 17th century, the emperor ruled that all future reincarnations of the Bogd were to be found in Tibet, to prevent a Mongol uprising.

Mongolians had long thought that the Bogd line had ended with the Eighth, a Tibetan-born lama who was revered for declaring independence from the Qing in 1911 and who died in 1924. When the Stalin era began shortly after, Communist rulers in Mongolia declared an end to the Bogd lineage. Through 70 years of socialist rule, officials suppressed the religion, killed senior lamas and monks, and razed temples.

After Mongolia’s democratic revolution in 1990, many in Mongolia were astonished when the Dalai Lama revealed that in 1936, a 4-year-old boy in Tibet had been secretly named the Ninth Bogd. He and the Dalai Lama had been friends, both fled China in 1959, and he had been living in India in obscurity.

Over the years, with the Dalai Lama’s encouragement, Buddhism re-established itself in Mongolia. Old monasteries were restored, and practitioners came out from the shadows. And the Ninth Bogd relocated there in 2011.

When he died one year later at 79, his will called for his reincarnation to be Mongolian, rather than Tibetan. The request would bind the lama closer to the people he was meant to lead.

Before A. Altannar was identified as Mongolia’s spiritual leader, he was born into Mongolian business royalty.

His grandmother, Garamjav Tseden, is the founder of one of the country’s most successful private companies, Monpolymet, which started in gold mining and has since expanded into making cement. His mother, the company’s chief executive officer, once served as a judge on Mongolia’s version of “Shark Tank,” the business-oriented reality TV show.

But the family’s success and Ms. Garamjav’s former role as a member of Parliament and a patron of the previous Bogd have raised questions about privilege and elitism seeping into the process of finding a Bogd. Some, including Khulan Tsoodolyn, a prominent poet, criticized A. Altannar’s selection as an example of the elite’s monopoly on power and prestige. (She was arrested in January on unspecified espionage charges and sentenced in July to nine years in prison.)

Shortly after A. Altannar was introduced by the Dalai Lama, Unurtsetseg Naran, an independent journalist, wrote on Facebook: “Why was a rich child selected?”

The boy’s parents say Ms. Naran’s posts have fueled threats online against their family. And they reject any suggestion that they bought their son’s position.

Wealth is a sensitive topic in Mongolia, where the chasm between rich and poor remains wide. Nowhere is that more stark than in Ulaanbaatar, where a quarter of the city’s residents live in poverty — often in ramshackle districts of nomadic tents on the city’s outskirts, far from the luxury malls and hotels that stand as monuments to the nation’s mining booms.

Historically, Tibetan lamas have often come from nobility. Some observers say young lamas from wealthy families benefit from being able to have a better education — and that their affluence is a potential sign of a past life that was righteous.

But there have always been complaints that the selections of lamas have been about politics and sometimes corruption.

In the late 18th century, Emperor Qianlong of China tried to address this by drawing lots from a golden urn to select lamas. The Chinese Communist Party resurrected the “Golden Urn” system in its bid to control the selection of Buddhist lamas and limit the Dalai Lama’s influence, though few outside the country consider it legitimate.

The naming of a Mongolian lama reincarnate ensures Mongolia will be drawn deeper into the political chess match between China and the Dalai Lama.

Mongolia relies on China to buy its exports and invest in its infrastructure. China’s imprint is on display in Ulaanbaatar, in a snaking four-lane overpass designed to ease the city’s punishing traffic, and a sports arena embossed with a logo that reads: “China Aid For Shared Future.”

For Mongolia, a wrong move in Beijing’s eyes would be costly.

It was in 2016, on a visit to Mongolia, that the Dalai Lama first said at a news conference that the Bogd had been discovered in the country — a bombshell announcement. China’s response was swift: It closed border crossings between the two countries, imposed tariffs and canceled bilateral talks.

The Dalai Lama has not visited Mongolia again since.

He now has a means to lay down a marker in Mongolia and expand the reach of his office, said Munkhnaran Bayarlkhagva, an analyst who used to work at the National Security Council of Mongolia. The selection of a Mongolian for the role was a “seismic shift in the center of power for Tibetan Buddhism” from Dharamsala to Ulaanbaatar, he said.

There are potential ramifications for the United States government, too. A. Altannar was born in Washington, D.C., making him an American citizen. That has fueled speculation that he was chosen because his U.S. citizenship could afford him some added protection from China.

China has not commented publicly about A. Altannar’s selection, but Mongolian and foreign officials speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter say Beijing has warned Mongolia of consequences if the Bogd grows too close to the Dalai Lama.

Telo Tulku Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s representative in Mongolia, accused China of wanting to “control Buddhism on a global level.” He denied that A. Altannar was selected for political reasons and said the Dalai Lama’s office would have little contact with the boy.

“This is a spiritual matter,” he said.

The phone call to the boy’s family with the news of his selection came from none other than Mongolia’s then-president, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, a sign of the national significance of the position.

But Ms. Munkhnasan, A. Altannar’s mother, said her immediate response was a flat-out rejection of the idea. The parents had hoped that their boys would one day study engineering and take over the family business empire.

“We said, ‘This can’t happen,’” Ms. Munkhnasan said. “My kid was still a baby at the time, and there was no sort of pre-warning or any communication about what was about to unfold.”

Ms. Munkhnasan and her husband, Altannar Chinchuluun, wrote to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, appealing for help. The reincarnation process, they argued, had robbed their son of his rights.

The family rushed to Ulaanbaatar after the call with the president and demanded the monks find another boy. The monks said they would try, but the Dalai Lama said no.

Instead, he recommended giving the family time to think in the hopes they would change their minds. In the meantime, the monks promised not to reveal the boy’s name.

Still, the couple agonized over their predicament.

Mr. Altannar, 43, a mathematician at the National University of Mongolia, worried he was turning his back on his country by refusing to restore a proud Mongolian institution. Ms. Munkhnasan feared she would invite bad karma on her family if she denied Tibetan Buddhists a sacred leader.

Eventually, the two decided they would try to strike a balance. The monks could instruct the boy if he also continued with his regular education. Most important, they insisted that it would have to be up to their son when he turns 18 whether he wanted to remain the Bogd.

“It’s his decision,” Ms. Munkhnasan said.

Until then, A. Altannar must adhere to a childhood like no other.

And it is not just his own life that has changed; it’s his brother’s, too. The twins dress identically and receive the same religious training as if both were the Bogd.

Ms. Munkhnasan said she didn’t want to “sacrifice” one child for the other — having one twin live in the shadow of his brother. But she said the family would have to make do until they are more confident about A. Altannar’s safety.

The boy seems to be traversing his two worlds with growing ease. When he visited Dharamsala for his introduction by the Dalai Lama, he sat still for hours listening to his teachings.

On a recent weekday, he was attentive at school and playful with his classmates, flashing a wide smile as he ran a relay race for gym class. Later, he donned his traditional Mongolian deel to receive his regular religious instruction at the Gandan monastery. In the presence of the monks, his boyish energy was replaced by an aura of calm and maturity as he read sutras and practiced rituals.

“Of course, as a boy, he doesn’t understand everything that’s going on, but he’s definitely not rejecting it,” Ms. Munkhnasan said. “He’s very comfortable.”

“It’s like his second nature to him.”

Khaliun Bayartsogt contributed reporting from Ulaanbaatar, and Olivia Wang from Hong Kong.

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